The Fourth Wave – Condo Finances

The Fourth Wave – Condo Finances

Condominium living offers many benefits and has become a very popular form of housing.  Those choosing to become condominium owners understand that they will pay a monthly fee responsible for funding both day-to-day operating costs as well as future major repairs and replacements (known as a reserve fund).  The intent when determining this fee is that if monthly assessments are set at an appropriate level, special assessments and bank loans will be avoided.  In my 35 years as a reserve professional, however, I have observed a very different reality.

The impact of inflation alone is enough to constantly increase operating costs and reserve funding requirements. In addition, observable trends in multiple associations over the years have indicated there are often four specific, predictable events that create “waves” of increased assessments or special assessments. While they won’t affect every association, history has shown that they will affect many.  The fourth wave is the biggest and, because it hits so long after the association’s construction, most original owners aren’t affected; instead, secondary owners feel the full impact. So, what are these four waves? 

The first wave can occur relatively early in the life of the association if developers set initial monthly assessments at the lowest possible level. This virtually guarantees significant short-term increases.  Assessments must often be raised to cover increased operating expenses and reserve funding.  Occasionally, they are often also necessary because members demand increased services such as on-site management, maintenance staff, better service providers, etc.

The second wave generally hits at about the 10-year mark.  This is often when large reserve expenses begin to occur, such as exterior building paint, asphalt treatments, pool resurfacing, carpet replacement, etc.  The scope of these costs are often unexpected for several reasons: estimated repair and replacement costs were set too low; no reserve study was ever performed; reserve assessments were kept artificially low due to developer transition; or reserve funds were diverted to the operating budget without raising the homeowner’s dues over recurring years. 

The third wave generally hits at about the 30-year mark. This occurs when an unfortunate confluence of events takes place: roofing needs replacement, exterior painting is required, and asphalt needs either a significant overlay or complete removal and replacement.  This is what is called a peak expenditure year.  When significant, large expenses do not all occur in the same year but occur close together, the process is referred to as a peak expenditure event (usually occurring over multiple years for communities aged 25 to 30 years).  The big-ticket items listed below are the ones that most associations will encounter in the third wave:

  • Roofing – Depending on roof type and material, costs often range from $4,000 to $25,000 per unit, and life generally ranges from 15 to 50 years, with the majority of roofing types not exceeding 30 years.
  • Siding Replacement – Some siding types may never require replacement and may be considered “lifetime components,” meaning they will last as long as the building structure. There are too many different siding materials to discuss here, and each has significant variations in life and cost.  In my experience, wood siding has the worst combination of both short lifespan and high replacement cost, but it is a widely-used product because of its aesthetic characteristics.
  • Painting – Depending on underlying surface, paint quality, climate, and proximity to salt air, the lifespan of paint can vary significantly. Most associations adopt painting cycles ranging from five to 15 years.
  • Asphalt – Depending on original construction quality, climate, and traffic conditions, the life of road surfaces can vary significantly. Even with interim maintenance such as slurry seal and overlay, most asphalt surfaces will require a complete replacement approximately every 30 years.
  • High-Rise Associations – Additional expenses to factor in include elevators, HVAC equipment, plumbing equipment, lobby remodels, interior hallways, lighting, and fire safety equipment.

The fourth wave generally comes as a complete shock to homeowners because 1) (almost) nobody plans for it,  2) most reserve preparers ignore it, and 3) it generally includes the most expensive components in any condominium project.  What are they?  The roof, paint, siding and paving are not actually the most expensive components; instead, the pipes and utilities inside your walls are.  Natural gas piping is less likely to fail and most electrical systems are replaced only if the walls are already open for another purpose, but domestic water and wastewater pipes, vent pipes, water mains from the street, irrigation mains and lateral lines, and sewer mains to the street all fail over time.  These are the most expensive components requiring replacement in virtually every condominium project.  It is extremely rare to see funding in a reserve study for these items, or to hear any mention that they exist through disclosures educating residents about these potential major future expenses. 

When are these costs likely to occur?  Engineers have testified in construction defect cases that the above utilities have a life range of 40 to 60 years; nominally, we tend to assume life expectancies of 50 years for planning purposes.  Therefore, if you’re living in a 50-year-old condominium that has not yet replaced these components, it’s prudent to investigate the current condition of your in-wall and subterranean utility lines.

There are two reasons these costs are normally not funded: standards and cost.

Standards - Most reserve specialists are following the National Reserve Study Standards established by trade organizations which allow them to ignore the most expensive component in a condominium project.  These standards even recommend that utilities be excluded until “a history of repairs exists,” and do not require disclosure of this omission.  Unfortunately, since these particular components have such a long life, by the time a history of repairs exists, it’s too late.  In contrast, our reserve study company follows the International Capital Budgeting Institute’s (ICBI) Generally Accepted Reserve Study Standards, which require either inclusion of these components or disclosure of their omission.  It’s critically important for industry trade organizations to recognize this major deficiency in disclosures to condominium owners.  Standards matter. 

Cost - On the low end, ignoring inflation, cost works out to $25 per month for fifty years. ($300 annually for 50 years is $15,000.)  It’s very difficult to convince anyone to pay $25 per month for 50 years.  Therefore, this particular item virtually always becomes a special assessment issue.  I’m not advocating that every association should be funding for this future cost, but in our reserve study reports we do insist that a disclosure is included so members are aware of the obligation if it is not being funded.

Except for those prepared by our company, I have never seen these components included in any reserve study unless the components had already started to fail.  Only once have I ever seen another company disclose the maintenance obligation, indicating it was not included in the study.  If these components are included in a reserve study only once they start to fail, it’s about 50 years too late. Disclosure of the obligation without funding for it should be the norm, as it is virtually impossible to get members to agree to a budget that has them paying that much money for that period of time, especially when many of those people will no longer be members of the condominium when the cost is incurred.

Of the more than 1,000 association clients represented by our reserve study company, only five have actually funded for utilities replacement starting when the condominium was constructed.  I have personally worked with 12 associations that have had to either completely or partially replace their in-wall and under slab utilities.  Costs have ranged from $15,000 to $50,000 per unit, resulting in special assessments.  These projects were in 35 to 60-year-old associations. 

The very large numbers of condominium associations that were constructed in the 1970s and 1980s are now reaching that 40 to 50-year age when these components begin to fail.  I anticipate that we’re going to be seeing many more associations faced with these large costs in coming years.  This will not be a wave; it will be a tsunami. Most of these associations will not be prepared for such unanticipated major costs, especially when many are not even well enough funded for their known reserve projects. 

Many associations have been relying on the wrong metric to determine the adequacy of their reserve funding, relying exclusively on “percent funded.”  Many reserve preparers promote this simplistic concept as the best means of determining the adequacy of reserve funding, which only serves to add to the confusion of funding for an aging community. The percent funded concept is a clumsy simplification that can be dangerous because people place so much importance on it without even knowing if it is an accurate calculation. (Unfortunately, in many cases it is not.) Many people have been indoctrinated to assume that if an association is 70% funded, it has a “strong” reserve fund, which virtually eliminates the possibility of a special assessment. 

While we generally disclose percent funded when our clients request it, we hesitate to place any emphasis on percent funded, as we have seen an association only 30% funded that never required a special assessment, and another that was 88% funded that needed an immediate special assessment.  A cash flow analysis is a much more reliable tool in analyzing a funding plan. Percent funded works only if all significant components are included in the reserve study, if it is properly calculated, and if it considers peak expenditure events.

Accurate planning is the answer to avoiding problems. Always remember, you can’t reserve for what you can’t see…in your report. Your “hidden” components still exist, and the replacement cost, if not properly budgeted, can lead to a political and financial disaster in your community.

Gary Porter, RS, FMP, CPA

Facilities Advisors International

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(877) 304-6700

Gary Porter served as CAI’s national president (1998-99), and is coauthor of CPA’s Guide to Homeowners Associations and Reserve Studies – The Complete Guide.  He is also President of the International Capital Budgeting Institute.  As a Facilities Management Professional (FMP), an experienced valuation consultant, and a CPA, he has the multidisciplinary training critical for the reserve study process.